The Psychology and Use of Bullet Points in Presentations

In this article I will only refer to presenters / presentations. However, the information also applies to trainers and training courses)

Unfortunately, one of the most common types of slide found in presentations and training courses is that of the “Bullet Point”: A list of long, often complex sentences which the presenter believes or hopes will help communicate their message effectively. Frequently, the presenter insists on reading each bullet point aloud (A Reading Master Class!) Which is often seen as insulting the audience’s intelligence and the presenter seems to go outside the written text which can confuse the audience. More often than not it is a crutch for the presenter instead of an aid for the audience. Even worse, it is often used with a dark blue background and white or yellow letters which is a great way to get the audience to disconnect from the presentation. (1)

Also, It is often shown as an “Open Show” slide where all the information is presented at one time. This is a big problem in a presentation as anything that is projected onto the screen immediately takes precedence over what the presenter is saying. The audience have to read, and understand, everything on the screen BEFORE the can pay attention to the presenter.

It is important to remember that the use of PowerPoint is to produce “Visual Aids” which are designed to help the audience to clearly understand a complex topic. They are NOT designed to act as a substitute for the presenter. “In a June 2013-2014 study, the results indicate that 88% of audience members disconnect from presentations when it turns into a master class reading lesson (2).”

It is the Presenter’s job to “control” the audience during the presentation and this includes their conscious and subconscious mental processes.

Social markers vs content:

Please read the following and identify the main message of the communication:

- Open the door!

- Would you please open the door!

- If it’s not too much trouble, would you please open the door!

- I would really appreciate it, if you could do me a favour and open the door!

- I know we have only been together for a short time today. However, I would really appreciate it if you could, whenever it is convenient for you, stand up and open the door.

Obviously, the message is “Open the door” in all of them. Apart from the first one which is the most basic and clearest one, all of the rest of them have what are known as “Social Markers”. These show the speaker’s perceived status relative to the receiver. The first one is from the absolute power to a subordinate. The last one is from a very subordinate person to the perceived as the most powerful: The longer the social marker used, the higher the status of the receiver.

End-weighting

In a post-graduate study that I undertook many years ago, investigated exactly what audience remembered with information listed as bullet points and our results showed that, in general, if the first point was memorable for some reason, the audience remember the concept. The degree of recall decreased with each successive point. The audience did, however tend to remember more clearly the last 2 or 3 points. This is another example of the primacy / recency effect in action.

Priority of the writer vs the reader

Task: Before continuing reading this article, Rapidly write down the five things that are most important for you in a relationship:

I am sure that you have written the most important one first and then in descending order of importance. Possibly, the last one or two are of much less importance the first ones. This has a very serious effect in presentations: The writer/presenter’s order of importance is usually from the most important to the least important while the reader will focus on, and remember most clearly, the last ones. Also, implicit in a bullet list is the relationship between the elements in the list which may, or may not, be clear to the audience.

In English & Spanish and many other languages, the main content of the communication is usually at the end. In spoken communication, we have the examples shown above.

Where is the main content of a written communication:

- in a paragraph – at the end.

- in a scientific communication – at the end (the conclusions)

- In a Detective story – at the end (Identification of the criminal)

Animation

In order to use bullet points effectively, it is highly recommended that the presenter animate each one to appear when they decide to show it: they then decide for how long the audience will see it and they also decide when it is time to move on to the next point. Finally, it forces the presenter to talk about each point in a way which the audience can follow. In this way the presenter is controlling the subconscious mental processes of the audience and it also allows them to elegantly make their presentation longer or shorter depending upon the time available: A.K.A. “An Accordion Presentation”.

Capital vs Small letters.

It is vital that the orthograpic rules of the language are followed in presentation slides exactly the same as if we were writing a report or other document. There in, in my opinion, NEVER any reason to write complete sentences or paragraphs in block capitals – even for titles.

Letter size

The minimum size for letters should be 28 point (Ariel). If the presenter really wants the audience to be able to read what they have written.

Deletion of redundant words

Do NOT write complete, complex sentences. Instead, write the key words that will pique the audience’s curosity about what you are going to say and therefore make them listen and pay attention in order to understand the message completely. Consider them as a “hook” to catch the subconscious mind of the audience.

E.g.,

“We will increase sales by 20% in the next quarter (Q4) after the launch of our new product” (BAD)

vs

” Sales (Q4) + 20%: New product.” (Good)

As you can see, there is much more to using simple “Bullet Points” in a presentation. There are alternative ways of communicate which are more effective and that will be the discussed in a future article.

Your feedback would be appreciated.

(1). “The results of a study done by Brownlee & Associates regarding this topic have been published in an article: “How to kill a presentation stone dead in three easy steps.” June, 2012. The link can be found below.”

Ian Brownlee is a specialist in communication and negotiation skills training who lives and works in Spain and does training worldwide for multinational organizations.

Leaving the Script Behind: How to Power Up Your Presentation Like the Pros

What sets the best presentations and briefings apart from the mediocre ones? It’s the presenter of course. No amount of slides and no script can do what the presenter themselves can for an audience: communicate powerfully and persuade. Real presentation skill is about showing your audience something that’s not on the slides, not on the script. Follow some simple rules that all great presenters use to separate themselves out from others.

The Presenter is Everything

No two presentations (even using the same materials or messages) are going to be exactly the same and that should never be the goal. Your presentation has to be built around your most powerful tool: yourself. That’s because authenticity is going to be key to informing and in particular, persuading an audience of something. If you follow a script too literally, you’re going to limit that tool to the words you’ve rehearsed instead of staying in the moment and allowing your own passion to show. You have to be confident enough to show each audience who you really are and they can never get that from the script. This is oral communication, so when you present, you simply have to present in an authentic way that allows your audience to see the confidence and belief you have in what you’re saying. That simply can’t come from a memorized script and in fact it’s often why formal presentations and speeches fail; a lack of authenticity. To soar, you need to reveal real truth to the audience about what you’re seeing, why you believe it, and what they’re to do with this information.

Presentations and Briefings Aren’t About Acting

Many times, clients want to know how a successful presentation “looks”, so they can copy whatever they think is working. The truth is, authenticity can’t be copied. You’re going to have to be very clear about what you believe before you get up to present or brief someone else. Your audience is not going to be persuaded of anything if they think you don’t even believe what you’re saying. Don’t be afraid to use “I” in your presentations. What about your own experience or background relates here? We’re often our most relaxed, authentic selves when we’re speaking about our own experiences. If you don’t believe and believe strongly in what you’re saying, find another way to get the information communicated. Save oral presentations of any kind for those areas you’re passionate about. You WILL be judged when you’re standing before others presenting information, so this is the time to make sure they see you at your best.

Perfection isn’t your goal: It’s Successful Communication

Presenters worry that if they don’t follow (or worse, memorize) their prepared script, they’ll blank out or stumble. Your audience isn’t expecting perfection; they’re expecting something interesting, worthwhile and pertinent to them. Focus on the content of what you want to say and make sure that content is built around what you know to be true. If you build your presentation simply around that, your authenticity and passion will far outweigh any minor flaws. You want your audience in the moment with you and focused on some essential information, not on the flawlessness of your reading abilities.

However you present, remember the materials are secondary to you, the presenter. Don’t be afraid to try some different ways of communicating those ideas and to never take a back seat in your own presentations!

Leaving the script behind doesn’t mean leaving the practice behind

You don’t want to memorize your script because remembering the words will be all you’ll be concentrating on. You want to practice until the essence of the presentation feels right, even second nature, before setting the script aside. The exact words you use are far less important than delivering the right information that’s tailored right to your audience and what you know they need to hear from you. If you doubt this, try putting your far more detailed information into handouts or printed material, and see what happens when your audience simply hears the “essence” of what you’ve come to deliver from you. They’ll be engaged and hungry for more information, which is exactly what you want. You can add far more detail in the q and a portion once they are engaged and you know what else they want to hear from you.

Just Take the Leap

Start by lifting your briefing or presentation up to its highest levels. Once you decide on your key ideas (no more than three), allow yourself to orally explain each one briefly. Hear what you naturally use as your strongest points behind each idea. Let those ‘bigger’ ideas guide you as you hone your oral presentation. Many if not most presenters simply sit and write their scripts and then try to rehearse and memorize, causing the “inauthenticity” problem of so many oral briefings. Try reversing the process (without the memorization). You need to hear yourself repeatedly get through the presentation without the script to get closer to what your audience is actually hearing and seeing. Once you get your core ideas down, you can gradually add a bit more; until you’re satisfied your presentation contains only the best of what you want to communicate. After all, that’s what your audience really wants to hear.

You really can present and deliver briefings like a pro! Leave the script behin